Sugar Hill to begin construction of park, gymnasium

SUGAR HILL - Every Wednesday evening, Brian Estrada, 17, meets with dozens of his friends at E.E. Robinson Park to play football. Add family and fans to the number of players, and the Wednesday night football crowd can amount to a hundred or more.

Nevermind that E.E. Robinson Park doesn't have a football field. For more than a year, players and fans have taken over the softball and soccer fields one night a week.

"Football is better than baseball," Estrada said. "Just give me a football field (in the park), and (I'll) be good."

Estrada might get his wish. The Sugar Hill mayor and city councilmen are finalizing plans for construction of a 49-acre park and 60,000-square-foot indoor recreation facility on Austin Garner Road. The project will be built in two, possibly three, phases at an estimated cost of $8.5 million.

Sugar Hill paid $400,000 for 14 acres along Austin Garner Road near Suwanee Dam Road in 2003 for the purpose of constructing a recreational facility. City officials accepted a 2005 donation from Parkway Associates of 35 acres that adjoins Sugar Hill's 14-acre purchase. Parkway Associates initially paid $1 million for the acreage, according to Bob Hail, city manager.

The 35 acres are in an overflow easement for Buford Dam, so no buildings or light poles can be built on the site. The acreage, however, is ideal for a passive recreation park with soccer fields, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, children's playground, asphalt walking trails and a dog park.

So what about Estrada's football field?

"What may happen when Austin Garner fields are done is that Atlanta Fire United Soccer Association may move their games and practices over to Austin Garner, and we may make a change for a football field for E.E. Robinson," Councilman Steve Edwards said. "A couple of folks from Home School Football have been talking to us about that."

AFUSA Chairman Bill Benewitz said the 3,660-member, 26-year-old club is eager to expand its presence in Sugar Hill by moving from E.E. Robinson Park to Austin Garner Road.

"We expect to continue to grow, especially with the World Cup happening this summer, so we need additional park space, especially in the Sugar Hill area," Benewitz said. "We would love to let some of our members play and practice a little closer to their homes. Austin Garner will fit nicely into our population's foot print."

Independent soccer players might find a home there, too.

"My husband loves soccer," said Rasa Saritas, a Lithuania native. "He and his friends will use the soccer fields."

The jewel of the project is a 60,000-square-foot gymnasium, theater and meeting center planned for the 14 acres that lie outside the overflow easement. At a projected cost of $6.5 million, the building will serve Sugar Hill's residents in all seasons and weather.

"We will have a large indoor venue for a winter movie series, plays or events that might get rained out at the other parks," Mayor Gary Pirkle said.

The final building design has not been completed, but plans include a stage with a retractable screen for showing movies. The theater/stage will fit in nicely with Sugar Hill's summer movie series, Reels at Robinson. The city purchased a projector and screen in 2005 at a cost of $15,000, which will pay for itself in one year as opposed to renting equipment, Hail said.

The structure will house an indoor gymnasium for basketball and volleyball and rooms for classes and meetings. Certain rooms will be available for rent for reunions, parties and other gatherings. Planners envision a creative architectural style that reflects the new downtown area's signature appearance.

"I believe it will possess turn-of-the-century architecture and a copper-colored tin roof," Councilman Nick Thompson said. "The architecture is consistent with our Downtown District Overlay, and the roof color and material is becoming a theme for the city."

Park part of master plan

Precision Planning designed the park's layout at a cost of $12,000. The unnamed park is part of a larger master plan to revise Sugar Hill into a walking city where subdivisions are connected to parks and the downtown area by a network of sidewalks. Workers are building sidewalks throughout the city. City officials are working with Gwinnett County officials to install sidewalks along the county roads that stand between the city limits and the Austin Garner Road park.

The Austin Garner Road park lies between two residential communities, Barrington Estates and Cypress Springs.

"It brings fields and open space to the north side of Highway 20, an area where we have a growing residential presence," Pirkle said. "This is the only plan we have for the Austin Garner/Suwanee Dam Road area. It is a residential area, and we want it to remain that way. We had some preliminary discussions about a conference center or campground area on some property we own between the golf course and Highway 20, but that is several years in the future."

The remainder of 2006 will be spent engineering the park's layout. Construction on phase one will begin in 2007, and it should open in 2008. Workers will build a passive recreation area, parking and a three-quarter-mile asphalt walking track in phase one. Phase two will see construction of the gymnasium, tennis courts, children's playground, parking lots and indoor and outdoor basketball courts. The idea of an indoor pool is being tossed around, but pools are expensive to maintain and insure. If one is built, it will constitute phase three.

The park will be paid for by money from the general fund, and SPLOST will contribute $3.8 million for construction, Edwards said. Sugar Hill is a relatively wealthy city, with about $10 million in cash.

"For the past five years we have been saving money and now it is time for it to become available," Edwards said. "Our goal is 35 percent of the annual budget for cash reserves. We have been frugal with taxpayer dollars and saved it for this type of project."

A $4 million contingency fund can help maintain the park, if needed.

"It is there for (any city) unforeseen or emergency situations," Pirkle said. "Any interest generated would go back into the general fund, which could be used for the park, but it could also be used for streets, drainage or other city expenses."

More than 1,600 homes have been approved to be built in Sugar Hill, which will increase the city's 14,000 population to about 18,000 within four years. The 34-acre E.E. Robinson Park on Level Creek Road is surrounded by residential property and can't be expanded any


"The requirement is there, and we will have it to support their needs," Councilman Marc Cohen said. "We need to address the recreation needs of all of our residents."

The Austin Garner Road park might encourage the surrounding area to evolve into an outdoor recreation area because of its proximity to Sugar Hill golf club.

"It provides an opportunity to create something unique and special," Councilman Clint Thompson said. "We will have a sports complex and fields located in an area that potentially could be connected via walking/running trails to the land we own behind the golf course, which could potentially be used for outdoor recreation such as camping. At the end of the day, it would be great if we created a recreation destination that was tied into other things, like the golf course and campgrounds."